Budgetary Power to the People

An experiment with direct democracy on Chicago’s South Side.

Joel Handley

The Regeneration Project was one of several possible projects that residents of Chicago's 49th ward voted on last year as part of the participatory budgeting process. This year the 5th ward will become the first on the city's South Side to implement participatory budgeting. (Samuel A. Love/ Flickr / Creative Commons)

It’s a Jan­u­ary night in the 5th Ward of Chica­go, and a small group of ward res­i­dents have gath­ered at Alder­man Leslie Hairston’s office in the South Shore neigh­bor­hood to eval­u­ate a long list of ideas on how to improve the ward’s trans­porta­tion sys­tem. All can agree that some­thing needs to be done about the dan­ger­ous inter­sec­tion near a neigh­bor­hood club on 55th street, where dri­vers can’t see pedes­tri­ans in the walk­way until after they’ve accel­er­at­ed around a curve. As they dis­cuss the dif­fer­ent options — pedes­tri­an cross­ing signs? a stop sign? a round­about? — they esti­mate how much each would cost, and con­sid­er com­pli­cat­ing fac­tors, like the fact that the east­ern edge of the inter­sec­tion is locat­ed in the neigh­bor­ing ward.

If the process is seen as a failure, it could further alienate Chicago citizens, many of whom are already wary of local politics. But if it’s successful, it could encourage further political engagement and a greater sense of what’s possible.

The meet­ing is part of the 5th Ward’s attempt at imple­ment­ing par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing, a process that allows cit­i­zens to choose how munic­i­pal funds could be best spent in their com­mu­ni­ties. In this case, the funds are the ward’s so-called menu mon­ey” — the $1.3 mil­lion allot­ted annu­al­ly to every ward to spend on small infra­struc­ture projects, like fix­ing pot holes or installing pedes­tri­an walk­ways. In the past, alder­men and ward staff have had full dis­cre­tion in decid­ing what projects to fund. But this May, for the first time, 5th Ward res­i­dents will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to vote direct­ly on how the mon­ey should be spent.

The vote in May will be the cul­mi­na­tion of a near year­long process dur­ing which com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers brain­storm poten­tial uses of the mon­ey, nar­row down the options and devel­op detailed project pro­pos­als. The ward is cur­rent­ly in the sec­ond stage: par­ing down over 170 ideas to cre­ate 32 pro­pos­als that ward res­i­dents will ulti­mate­ly vote on.

The three com­mu­ni­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tives gath­ered in Alder­man Hairston’s office are mem­bers of the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee, one of six com­mit­tees tasked with eval­u­at­ing ideas and devel­op­ing pro­pos­als. (The oth­er five com­mit­tees are arts and cul­ture, parks and recre­ation, cen­ters and spaces, pub­lic safe­ty and streets.) A total of 40 ward res­i­dents have vol­un­teered to serve as com­mu­ni­ty rep­re­sen­ta­tives, choos­ing which com­mit­tee to join based on their indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ence — for exam­ple, Robert Daniels says he joined the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee because he takes pub­lic tran­sit every­where he goes. But as the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee dis­cuss­es the project ideas res­i­dents have sub­mit­ted — more bench­es at bus stops, side­walk repairs, dis­abil­i­ty access ramps on walk­ways — they’re find­ing that many may fall under the juris­dic­tion of city agen­cies like the Chica­go Tran­sit Author­i­ty, a con­di­tion that Alder­man Hair­ston says makes them inel­i­gi­ble for ward menu mon­ey. By the end of the meet­ing, the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee has nar­rowed the list of ideas down to three: replac­ing bro­ken reflec­tive poles at a bike path, con­nect­ing two inde­pen­dent bike paths and installing a stop sign at a noto­ri­ous­ly dan­ger­ous pedes­tri­an crossing.

A Brazil­ian import

When the con­cept of par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing was cre­at­ed in 1989 in Por­to Ale­gre, Brazil, by the Brazil­ian Work­ers’ Par­ty, it rep­re­sent­ed a rad­i­cal step for­ward for democ­ra­cy in a city, and coun­try, long-oppressed by the mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment that had ruled by force for two decades. Every year, fifty thou­sand Por­to Ale­gre cit­i­zens col­lec­tive­ly deter­mine the bud­get for many of the city’s ser­vices and infra­struc­ture projects. Once plagued by severe income inequal­i­ty and ubiq­ui­tous slums, Por­to Ale­gre has ben­e­fit­ted sig­nif­i­cant­ly from par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing. As David Lewit wrote in YES! mag­a­zine in 2002, In sev­en years, hous­ing assis­tance jumped from 1,700 fam­i­lies to 29,000. In 12 years, the num­ber of pub­lic schools increased from 29 to 86, and lit­er­a­cy has reached 98 percent.”

By 2007, the con­cept had spread to over 1,200 cities across the world, but in the U.S. it has only been attempt­ed in spe­cif­ic neigh­bor­hoods in New York City and Chica­go. Until last year, par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing in Chica­go had been lim­it­ed to a sin­gle ward, the 49th, where Alder­man Joe Moore intro­duced the process in 2009. Since then, his con­stituents have vot­ed for projects that range from the mun­dane but nec­es­sary — like street resur­fac­ing — to more col­or­ful pro­pos­als like murals and a dog park. Mean­while, Moore has been pros­e­ly­tiz­ing to oth­er city coun­cil mem­bers, and this year, three oth­er wards — the 5th, 45th and 46th — are jump­ing in.

Alder­man Hair­ston and 5th Ward res­i­dents became inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing after Alder­man Moore vis­it­ed a 5th Ward meet­ing in 2011 to share how it worked in his Rogers Park neigh­bor­hood. Hair­ston says, ” I have a very active com­mu­ni­ty, peo­ple employed in all walks of life — in the park dis­trict, in com­mu­ni­ty issues — so I want­ed to share the deci­sion-mak­ing with them.”

Dif­fer­ent strokes

Still, $1.3 mil­lion can only go so far, and the 5th Ward — the only South Side ward to try par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing — faces unique chal­lenges. The ward, which includes parts of the Hyde Park, Wood­lawn, Greater Grand Cross­ing, and South Shore neigh­bor­hoods, is home to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and lake­front con­do­mini­ums, but also includes blight­ed, impov­er­ished inland blocks. The hous­ing cri­sis may be slow­ing in oth­er areas in Chica­go, but the 5th Ward con­tin­ues to strug­gle with fore­clo­sures. (Accord­ing to a Feb­ru­ary report by the Wood­stock Insti­tute, in 2012, fore­clo­sure auc­tions in the 5th Ward jumped 62.7 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year.) The range of project ideas that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers have come up with so far speaks to the diverse pri­or­i­ties of ward res­i­dents — some want lux­u­ries like a heat­ed dri­ving golf range, oth­ers sim­ply want more street lights so they can walk more safe­ly at night.

The ward is also con­fronting an edu­ca­tion cri­sis per­pet­u­at­ed by the city’s so-called reform agen­da, which shut­ters pub­lic schools in favor of pri­vate­ly run char­ter schools. In recent years, four area pub­lic schools have closed, and cur­rent­ly, May­or Rahm Emanuel and the Chica­go Pub­lic School sys­tem are con­sid­er­ing clos­ing up to 12 of the ward’s remain­ing 21 schools. 

$1.3 mil­lion isn’t going to do much toward ame­lio­rat­ing the ward’s most press­ing prob­lems. But in a city not inclined to involve the pub­lic in deci­sion-mak­ing — May­or Eman­u­al has attacked both the idea of hav­ing an elect­ed school board and a bud­get over­sight com­mit­tee — the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of ward menu mon­ey is a small step, but a sig­nif­i­cant one. As Pat Wilcox­en, a mem­ber of the 5th Ward’s lead­er­ship and trans­porta­tion com­mit­tees, puts in, Any­thing that adds more trans­paren­cy and involve­ment of the cit­i­zen­ry is a good idea.”

Bumps in the road

On Valentine’s Day, when the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee held its next meet­ing, it received bad news: All 23 of the committee’s ideas had been des­ig­nat­ed as ser­vice requests,” which means they fall under the respon­si­bil­i­ty of oth­er city agen­cies. Alder­man Hair­ston says she doesn’t want the 5th Ward to spend its lim­it­ed menu mon­ey to fund the work of oth­er agen­cies. So effec­tive­ly, the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee now over­sees zero projects.

Wilcox­en was dis­cour­aged by the devel­op­ment. I think we owe it to all those peo­ple that came out to the com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings — if you want those peo­ple to get back to us again, you have to show them some­thing, because why would they believe all this rhetoric if noth­ing comes of it?”

Wilcoxen’s con­cern points to a larg­er truth about the par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing exper­i­ment: There’s more at stake in this project than the $1.3 mil­lion in menu mon­ey. If the process is seen as a fail­ure, it could fur­ther alien­ate Chica­go cit­i­zens, many of whom are already wary of local pol­i­tics. But if it’s suc­cess­ful, it could encour­age fur­ther polit­i­cal engage­ment and a greater sense of what’s possible.

Elliot El-Amin, a South Shore res­i­dent and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the 5th Ward’s Cen­ters and Spaces Com­mit­tee, already sees pos­i­tive devel­op­ments emerg­ing from the process. El-Amin has helped weed out some of the more elab­o­rate and pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive ideas. Though the menu mon­ey won’t fund a youth cen­ter or a skat­ing rink, he sees a promis­ing future for his ward in the col­lec­tive dis­cus­sions that have been tak­ing place. We had an idea of a dance and art cen­ter, and of course we couldn’t fund it, but that per­son [who came up with the idea] got togeth­er with a group of artists and dancers that nor­mal­ly wouldn’t have known each oth­er,” El-Amin says. And while res­i­dents may not get to vote to spend the menu mon­ey on bus stop bench­es or the oth­er ideas the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee dis­cussed, now at least they know what com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers want, and the com­mit­tee plans to fol­low up with city agen­cies to make sure res­i­dents’ ser­vice requests are being heard.

Over­all, despite these set­backs, most of the par­tic­i­pat­ing ward res­i­dents so far seem hap­py with the process. Before, the alder­man might get input from peo­ple who might want things done on their blocks,” says Robert Daniels, from the trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee. And now this gets peo­ple more involved.” El-Amin sees par­tic­i­pa­to­ry bud­get­ing as a small start to a new way of mak­ing deci­sions. There’s an alarm­ing trend nowa­days where you have a lot of influ­ence from folks that are up top — but once we real­ly look at what the com­mu­ni­ty needs, you see that the best way to find that out is to go to the com­mu­ni­ty and ask them.”

This arti­cle is the first in Direct Democ­ra­cy in Chicago’s 5th Ward,” a 5‑part series that will fol­low the par­tic­i­pa­to­ry vot­ing process in the 5th Ward. This series is sup­port­ed by a grant from the Local Report­ing Ini­tia­tive of the Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Trust.

Joel Han­d­ley, a for­mer assis­tant edi­tor at In These Times, is a Chica­go-based inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist and free­lance editor.
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